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A crackdown on India's cybercafes

By Nandini Lakshman,
July 22, 2008 12:34 IST
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There couldn't have been a worse time for Ujjwal Sen's home computer to crash: The high school student from the suburbs of Mumbai was buried in applications toUS universities in May.

With deadlines fast approaching, a worried Sen ran to a cybercafe down the street from his home. The 10-seat cafe, squeezed between a grocer and a hardware store, was always the backstop when the 16-year-old's computer went on the fritz.

Imagine Sen's horror when he discovered that it had been replaced by a pastry shop. Worse still, three other cafes in his neighborhood had closed down as well. Finally, after trudging two miles, Sen found a cafe, but was granted admission after a long interrogation about his background that only satisfied the owners when he produced his student ID card.

"I never imagined that cybercafes in Mumbai would disappear, or entering them would be tough," says Sen.

His concerns aren't unfounded. The increasingly heavy curbs on friendly neighborhood cybercafes are stunting the spread of the Internet.

The crackdown comes as India is trying to increase household PC penetration, which is currently at just 2 PCs for every 100 households, says the technology trade group NASSCOM, and broadband connectivity, an abysmal 4 million connections, vs. China's 3.2 million new connections every quarter, according to BNP Paribas.

Even Vietnam, with a population of just 84 million, is signing up 120,000 new broadband users per month, according to IDC.

Cafe owners now need licenses

Why the crackdown? Officials in states like Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, and Haryana in the north believe that getting tough with cybercafes will help them nab "terrorists, hackers, pedophiles, and porn users," says Ashish Saboo, president of the Association of Public Internet Access Providers.

India has long been a target of terrorist attacks both within and beyond its borders. In May 60 people died in a deadly bomb explosion aboard a passenger train in the city of Jaipur, while another 60 were killed in an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7.

As a result, cafe owners are expected to secure half a dozen licenses to keep their enterprises afloat, and users are now getting grilled by cafe owners for personal details. "It's the only way to keep tabs on nefarious activities, many of which, we believe, originate from Internet cafes," says an Internet cafe registration officer in Mumbai.

There are no official figures on the size of the cybercafe market in India, which has low entry barriers and is dominated by the informal sector.

Saboo reckons that of the 250,000 cyber-outlets in India, only 4%, or 10,000 outlets, are organized. This includes private players like Sify and Reliance, which have a pan-Indian cybercafe presence. Most of the cafes -- those ubiquitous mom-and-pop shops occupying between 100 and 300 square feet of space -- are run by entrepreneurs.

These cafes have survived on pirated software, charging from 25 cents to a dollar for an hour's use. Now, however, they must register their outlets with local authorities, who ensure that they use legit Microsoft (MSFT) software for each of their terminals. This often requires them to upgrade their PCs, and those who cannot afford to comply simply shut down.

Turning away customers

One of the first cybercafes was set up by Dilip Chitalia opposite Churchgate rail station in downtown Mumbai over a decade ago. Chitalia, who runs a small printing and photocopying business, offered the Net as a peripheral service.

Ten years later he gets around 70 users a day who pay $1 an hour, down from $3.50 when he first opened. He turns away at least five customers a day for lack of proper proof of identification. His clientele includes college students, foreign tourists, and sundry users.

In the past year, he spent over $2,500 to upgrade his 10 terminals with the latest Microsoft software, and shuts the cafe by 8:30 p.m. instead of midnight as he once did. "We are always doing business with fear," says Chitalia.

With the cops dropping in four times in the past eight months, Chitalia plans to install a closed-circuit television to appease them. He's already begun dabbling in stocks as an alternative in case business becomes untenable.

The clampdown has become more visible in Mumbai in the past six months. Five years ago, the city was the largest cybercafe market in India, with a 20% share. There are only 600 outlets left in the city, down from 2,000, a 70% drop since 2006.

The shrinking numbers are also attributed to the growing affordability of home PCs. In the past two years, average PC prices have fallen to $420 from $930.

Shades of BlackBerry eavesdropping

At the same time, higher real estate costs, registration fees, a dwindling clientele, and the constant fear of cops swooping down are forcing entrepreneurs to wind up their businesses.

"There is no one reason to trigger a raid. It could be a bomb blast, an abusive mail complaint, or even a tip-off on adult sites' usage," says Dilip Sawant, a cybercafe owner and activist. On July 3, complaints about an abusive mail in Panaji, the capital of Goa, led authorities to issue orders for cafes owners to provide customer identity information throughout the northern part of the state.

"Every country nails Internet users based on circumstantial evidence, but nobody creates an uproar like in India," says Saboo of the Internet providers' association.

That's nothing new. There was pandemonium in March 2008, when India decided to eavesdrop on BlackBerry phone users.

The Indian telecommunications department told telecom carriers, Internet service providers, and BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) of Canada that it wanted to eavesdrop on the calls and e-mails from every BlackBerry in the country. The reason, said intelligence officials, was that terrorists using BlackBerrys were avoiding detection. Four months later, New Delhi and RIM are still fumbling for a solution.

Getting rid of pirated software

But not all cybercafe patrons are wary about giving out information. "I'm game to divulge details if that's the way to prevent misuse," says Nimisha Parekh, a college student and cybercafe regular. Indeed, some say it's a positive sign for the authorities, who are going all out to bring some method to an unregulated business that survived on fake software.

It also means a lot to Microsoft, which is struggling to curtail the rampant use of pirated software. "Unfortunately, this business is taken lightly by entrepreneurs. Monetizing legal software is critical to our mission," says Latif Nathani, general manager, Unlimited Potential group at Microsoft India.

Also, concerted attempts are under way to bring digital communication to rural India. In the past eight years, over 100 projects were announced to bring connectivity to the rural masses.

The lack of bandwidth stalled the projects' expansion. In May 2008, New Delhi said it would invest $2 billion to set up 112,000 broadband centers in rural India this year. "Given India's diversity, there is a need to bring computing experience to a large part of the population," says Pranav Roach, president, Hughes Network Systems India. Hughes, which has so far built a network of 2,000 Net kiosks in India, plans to scale up to 20,000 by end 2009.

"It's all about content, connectivity, and operator. The game's just begun," he adds.

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Nandini Lakshman,